Kevin Kelleher of GigaOM believes that: “2009 may smile on disruptive
startups.” In his opinion, “There is, however, a way for startups to
not only stand out in this recession, but thrive in it: By being as
disruptive as possible.“
‘Disruption‘ is one of those words Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, VCs and observers have come to love.
The appeal of the concept is laid out nicely in Clayton M. Christensen’s best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Christensen, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, coined the term ‘disruptive technology‘ and his basic thesis is simple: companies that are able to create a product, service or business model that either brings new customers into an existing market or creates a new application within an existing market can ‘disrupt‘ even the best big companies in that market.
Christensen’s thesis seems plausible enough on the surface and his book explains in greater detail the criteria he uses to quality disruptive technologies. Using these criteria, Christensen provides examples of the technologies that he considers disruptive.
In 2004, PC Mag’s John C. Dvorak wrote an interesting piece that called the “the concept of disruptive technology…the biggest crock of the new millennium.”
Dvorak’s argument isn’t altogether unreasonable. While I enjoyed reading The Innovator’s Dilemma, quite a bit of it reminded me of other business books (by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson) that present sexy theoretical narratives but leave the discerning reader asking, “Ok so what? Is this really valid or practically applied in the real world?”
Frankly, I don’t really care to discuss the validity of Christensen’s ideas. What I do think is worth discussing is how meaningless the concept of disruption has become in Silicon Valley.
Kelleher’s statement that “2009 may smile on disruptive startups” is just one of many examples of this and I’d argue that such inane comments reflect how misguided Silicon Valley has become.
First, it’s important to understand what disruption really is. Again, Christensen’s interesting book puts forth a set of criteria from which to judge whether or not a product, service or business model is disruptive. While one is not obligated to agree with Christensen, his criteria are his criteria and when using the term he coined, one should maintain some intellectual honesty by adhering to his criteria.
By Christensen’s standards, it is obvious that not every innovation is a disruptive one. There are, for instance, revolutionary and evolutionary technologies, both of which have propelled companies to great success.
Many people in Silicon Valley don’t understand the difference between disruptive, evolutionary and revolutionary technologies. For instance, when TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington sat down with PC Mag to discuss disruptive technologies, he classified the iPhone as one. Why?
“I think that if you look at, in Silicon Valley, and you look around in say, the average street in Palo Alto, iPhone has like 70 percent market share. I mean, it’s disrupting the telephone market and the definition of what a telephone is. So, I just think that’s incredibly cool. It’s setting completely new standards of what a cell phone needs to be, both from design and functionality stand point.”
This, of course, fails to meet the criteria laid out by Christensen (the iPhone has not disrupted the telephone market) and Arrington demonstrates just how easily new products, services and business models are miscategorized as being disruptive.
When Kelleher states “…there is reason to believe that 2009 will allow original ideas, and companies behind them to come forth” he, like so many others stuck in Silicon Valley, seems to ignore the fact that original ideas are not in and of themselves disruptive.
Second, disruptive technologies are never ‘frowned upon‘. Startups that are able to enter a market and expand it by opening it up to new customers or creating new applications that increase its size can logically emerge in both up and down markets. Disruption has little to do with the economic environment and everything to do with how a new product, service or business model impacts the market it targets.
Different economic environments obviously offer unique challenges and opportunities that can make it more or less difficult for new companies to succeed but when it comes to the pure concept of disruption, disruption is not either in vogue or out of style at any given time. It’s not a trend, it’s a concept.
Finally, and most importantly, disruption shouldn’t be a new company’s singular goal. As Christensen pointed out in an interview, “I don’t feel that this concept of disruptive technology is the solution for everybody.“
Real entrepreneurs create new products, services and business models because they see an opportunity to profit from them. They do not try to ‘engineer‘ disruption because it’s cool or fashionable. Whether a new product or technology is evolutionary, revolutionary or disruptive does not matter – its creator should be focused on successfully entering the market and creating value in the form of profit. Period. There’s nothing else to it.
Real entrepreneurs do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Disruptive technologies are hot this year. Evolutionary technologies are so last year. I think I’ll try to create something disruptive.“
From this perspective, I’d argue that Silicon Valley places far too much emphasis on semantics and spends far too much time on pointless pontification that typically does little more than serve a self-congratulatory purpose. If Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors had spent the last several years focused on creating companies that profitably produce technologies people want, need and are willing to pay for, perhaps we would have seen the creation of far more Silicon Valley upstarts that were today viable, self-sustaining businesses.
When Silicon Valley insiders and observers call every hot new product disruptive, treat disruption like a fashion trend and make statements such as “[it’s] safer to build disruptive innovation from scratch than defend an incumbent position” it should be clear that Silicon Valley has lost the plot.
Silicon Valley’s job is to produce new technologies that benefit their users. It should leave the categorization of those technologies to business school professors.